Sunday, May 06, 2007


AN old saying (well, at least as far back as Yoda in the myth-mining The Empire Strikes Back) goes something like this: "There is no try, only do or not do."

However fortune-cookie-ish and deliciously Delphic this advice may sound, it's false. There are all sorts of things (an infinite number, actually) that I'm not doing right now that I'm not trying to do, and I think it's at least arguable that I am doing all sorts of things at the moment without trying. (I'm typing this out into a little window on the Web, but it seems odd to say, barring any peculiar circumstances, that I'm trying to make my fingers hit the right keys as I do so or that I'm trying to breathe all the while.) We need another category of action that can pick out a certain class of doings and not doings. Enter trying.

Trying has to do with drawing close to the precipice of risk — of attempting something that might not go well or go at all. And to my ear, one can only try things (more or less) that one might reasonably think one could do. If a friend of mine tells me that he tried to lift the Empire State Building, I'm not sure what he means. He may have grabbed a grubby bit of wall near the base and made a strained face, but I'm inclined to say that he only pretended to try. (Note: Lots of questions here. Isn't trying a doing itself, and doesn't that mean that you have to try to try, and so on and so on? Fair enough. Though philosophy can be fun, let's not get too bogged down here.) We also say that something is trying when it becomes difficult or annoying. Fear, risk, difficulty, annoyance: not the best connotations associated with the word, is what I'm saying.

I mention all of this because my wife and I recently confronted a parenting puzzle that we're not sure how to unlock. Yesterday the four of us went to the family street fair put on yearly by the good folks of the Tribeca Film Festival. Much of Tribeca that we routinely haunt gets closed down and filled with all sorts of sponsor booths, from local businesses and schools (The Boy's Montessori had its own cluster of craft tables) to ESPN, the NBA, etc. Lots of free and fun stuff. Anyway, each year the USTA has a fun setup where kids of all sizes can play. This year they even had extra-large tennis balls, bigger than grapefruits but smaller than cantaloupes, to go with the child-friendly rackets for those who want to step inside the net to take a few whacks. Q went right in with my wife, and they hit a couple together to the delight of them both.

The Boy loves tennis and has for some time. He can actually hit a real tennis ball pretty well, and he's usually the one to suggest digging the rackets out of the closet on warm days. When the U.S. Open arrives at the end of August, he always asks to go play on the miniature court usually installed in front of the Winter Garden. We like tennis, but we've tried to be careful not to bully him into the sport.

Yesterday morning, though, he flatly refused to play, saying that he can't do it and so just wanted to watch. He wouldn't even get near the court, crumpling on the ground like a nonviolent protester when I tried to go in with him. It was early, too, which meant that not that many people were watching. (It wasn't just tennis: he also didn't want to try tossing basketballs with the other kids at the little NBA hoops across the street.) We cheered and cajoled and finally threatened him with going home if he didn't at least try what he knew he could already do. In the end, he didn't cave and neither did we: He and I walked home, holding hands and not saying a word, while Q and my wife stayed to work their way around the rest of the festival.

The Boy can be daring — he'll try just about any food you give him, for example, from sushi to stinky cheese. But he has always been rather timid physically despite lately becoming long and lithe. And he's getting fast; I can't dog it down the hall anymore when I race him to our door. (That fact could have something to do with my own state of shape, admittedly, but anyway.) He doesn't recognize his own transformation all that clearly. If only he could see the big kid we see.

To be fair, it's not as if any of this stuff gets easier once you get older; self-awareness is always a tricky business. My wife and I both tend to be relatively risk averse, which is one big reason why, I suppose, we haven't bought an apartment here in NYC or fled the city altogether for the suburbs or for far-off, calmer, states. I've stuck with academia as long as I have — despite being overworked and underpaid like most professors — largely because my imagination blanks when I try conceiving of an alternative. To a certain extent I know that I could do many things, some of them even quite well, but to do any of them, I would have to try. Which means risking failure.

So I understand The Boy's predicament. To try is to open oneself up to the possibility of not doing, and the fear of that possibility can be paralyzing. And perhaps it's even worse if you try something that you have done in the past; if you don't succeed this time, you're not as good as you once were. (Gazing at 40 just off in the distance, I have some acquaintance with that, too.) Our remedy has been to remind The Boy of the successes he's had, how far he's come, what he can do now that he couldn't do just a little while before, and to give him new opportunities for little victories. We just work on kicking a ball or catching one; we nudge him to hit a tennis ball again and again, not necessarily over a net or within a service line. The point is only to connect, and when he does, we note it and try to get him to try again. This strategy has had limited success, it seems. We're certainly open to suggestions.

But it's ultimately up to him to see what he can do. And it's up to us, too. Perhaps we — perhaps I — just need to show him what trying really means.

It seems worth a try, at any rate.

1 comment:

Nancy Meeks said...

We all want children who can make choices and can determine what they want to do, even if the parents are frustrated by the choices. Believe me I have been there. However, we do the best we can with our children and hope that down the road they will make the right choices and remember all the options that have been presented with love.